by Vincent Daemon
“Late again, huh, Agar?” laughed the only other employee at Corman’s, Walter Paisley. He was an older, weathered man, had worked at the petting zoo since it had originally opened in 1954, hated Corman with a passion, and much preferred the establishment when it was run by founder Harold-Ray Hausen: he knew how to treat the animals, the employees, and the customers. Harold had been a generous and gregarious gentleman who just intuitively knew how to deal with any manner of personality, animal and human alike, with as little conflict or instigation as possible, should any kind of issue arise, which was an utter rarity. Plus, he wasn’t all about the money, or freakishly strange animals, or winning ridiculous holiday carnivals. Harold-Ray Hausen was the polar opposite of Corman. But Paisley genuinely loved the animals and stayed aboard, much like John. And, much like John, who was twenty-five years his junior, desperately needed the money. Over the years, John and Walter formed a unique friendship, and worked very well together. “You look cold, buddy. Car again?”
“Yeah,” John sighed out with a thick white plume of cigarette smoke. “Fuckin’ spark plug–what else would it be? Dammit.”
“I told you to get ridda that car months ago, kid. It’s a grief-machine, much like that wacko death-stripper girlfriend of yours. She refused to help ya out again, I’m supposin’.”
“Yeah,” John sighed again, another plume of white smoke streaming out with the word. “Not sure if she ever was my girlfriend.”
“I told ya ta get ridda that grief-machine months ago too, remember? And no, she never was.” Walter indeed kept his own series of painful lifelong experiences. Being older and wiser, and a bit of a strange fellow himself, he’d had more than his share of ex-wives and relationship griefs over the years to know well and rightly of what he spoke. “She’s just gonna ruin your life, kid, like Corman did this zoo, an’ you got a good head on them there shoulders. Get that wacky stuff you write published, don’t end up here forever, like I did. A broad like that’ll do that to a man. Shit, ya shoulda called me, I’d'a grabbed ya, no problem.”
“I wasn’t going to bug you at three a.m. man, you’re old, you need that rest,” John chuckled smoke out at Walter.
“OLD! You little sonofabitch, I oughta...” and he came over and patted John on the back like a caring old uncle. “Hey Johnny, you got any reefer on ya? I’m nervous about this polar bear. Corman’s a fucknut, and this is just a plain bad idea. If I didn’t need the goddamn money so bad, and love these damned animals so much, I’d walk the hell out right now.” The look on Walter’s face was one of obvious, long-term stewing discontentment and genuine concern. “An’ ta tell ya tha truth, kid, I’m more concerned about Corman than that poor goddamned bear. He’d do something really stupid, like let a kid feed the bear.”
John laughed aloud, “you’re killing me man,” as he pulled another joint from his pocket (that was how they both coped with the job and Corman himself–they took any number of “smoke breaks” a day–and John had a few extra on him this particular day) and handed it to Paisley. “Take it to the head, my friend. All yours, med grade. Go take this and kill it up before Corman gets here. I’m gonna suit up.”
Ten minutes later, a familiar bark came from the main office door, “It’s Polar Bear Day fellas! And he’s just about here!” There was a sickly joy of demonic holiday greed writhing within every word Corman spoke. And complete recklessness. “I’m thinking we should put him by those stupid, giant-ass blind penguins that keep bumping into each other like fools. It’ll probably rile-up the bear good! The kids are gonna love it!” The man just kept speaking as he approached John and the freshly stoned Paisley, his words disappearing into both their ears not unlike those strange, muted “grown-up” voices from the old Charlie Brown cartoons. To John and Walter, Corman’s words were merely guttural utterances and commands, typically crude and regularly mechanical, albeit much louder than necessary.
And, as always, his plan was terrible. “We’re just going to back the truck right up to the cage. That way we have the duck, those stupid penguins, and the polar bear all lined up together. The transfer should be easy, like I said, right from the back of the U-haul to his new cagey home. This bear fucker is getting door to door service, so this shit better pay off. It wasn’t cheap, y’know.”
Yeah, they knew. It reflected in their recent pay-cut. “An absolute necessity if we are going to have a profitable holiday, and I want that damned bear!” being Corman’s constant mutterings to them since before even September.
“Truck's here, let’s get to it guys, chop-chop!” commanded Corman in his muted-trumpet tone of quasi-authority, obnoxious double-handed clap included.
John and Walter glared at Corman (he was shuffling papers, as always, counting numbers, didn’t even notice their death glances), then looked to each other in that way close friends do when needing to communicate without words: This is going to be one long, bad fucking day.
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